Rambling: Keston – Downe 8km hike

This is a lovely route from Keston to Holwood Farm and then on to the village of Downe. Having found the end of the footpath on a previous walk, we set off in the middle of last week’s snowfall, quite a break from the mundanities of lockdown and home-schooling.

The walk skirts around the grounds of Holwood House and eventually crosses its grand driveway near the main gates. Sadly, there’s no direct view of the main house from the footpath, although another range of houses is visible and is also quite impressive. Also at the edge of Holwood Estate are the remains of an oak tree attributed to William Wilberforce, the scene of a discussion he held in 1788 with Mr Pitt (the Prime Minister), the conclusion of which was to set about the abolishment of the slave trade in the United Kingdom.

On arrival at Downe, we were delighted to find that The Queen’s Head pub has converted one of its private dining rooms into a shop selling teas/coffees as well as general produce. They opened it in November due to the pub itself closing under lockdown rules and it’s proving very popular with hikers and cyclists.

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Book Review: The Sentinel, Lee Child/Andrew Child

This is the first Jack Reacher thriller since Lee Child announced that he would be passing the baton to his brother, Andrew, to continue the series. I’ve read all of the previous books, so was intrigued to see how the style of writing might change. For example, Lee Child has previously mentioned in interviews that, now Reacher is getting older, the pace of the books may have to slow down.

If anything, I think this book sees the pace increase. There is certainly more violence and Reacher is only too happy to hand out his own view of justice. It starts at a bar, where Reacher enjoys the music played by a band, and is appalled to find out that the management refused to pay them (and damaged one of their guitars). He takes matters into his own hands and sees that the band is compensated. This episode is by no means central to the story, it just sets the scene of Reacher taking the side of the underdog. That continues when he arrives in a town and sees Rusty Rutherford, an IT guy, under attack on the street. He steps in – and acts as his bodyguard for the rest of the story.

I always enjoy the Reacher books where he teams up with either old army buddies or some law enforcement agency. Here, the natural storyline might have been to work with Officer Rule, a woman officer in the local police who provides some background information on Rusty and seems amenable to Reacher’s charms. However, she remains a peripheral character – instead, Reacher works with Rusty and his colleague Sarah, formerly of the FBI. Later, we meant Agent Fisher – working for the FBI to infiltrate a gang of Russians working in the area. She and Reacher collaborate and manage to save each others necks at various times.

The plot starts to disappoint when Rusty and Sarah are desperate to find some computing servers that hold evidence that their software worked against hackers. We witness Jack Reacher trawling around town, trying to find a rack of black servers. They’ve been passed from one party to another and Reacher threatens or abuses everyone involved until they get the servers back. It’s just not the sort of scene Jack Reacher would normally care about – I appreciate that he’d like to help Rusty clear his name, but I’d rather he’d spent the book directly investigating the case of the missing journalist who was tortured early in the book.

Reacher books typically end with a final battle where he faces the toughest villain. It’s flagged several times in the book that a Russian gangster is arriving from Moscow to sort out his team, so it’s clear that Reacher will have to take him on. Despite having 3 strong characters to choose from, the authors leave Reacher to handle the battle solo. Fisher is out of action, Sands just gives him a lift by car and picks him up later (yes, really) and Officer Rule was an on-looker at the end (although she does offer to cook him a meal). Jack Reacher stories have had strong women characters at the centre of the action in the past (Casey Nice in Personal, Michelle Chang in Make Me, Sergeant Frances Neagley with several appearances), so I was surprised that the women in this story had supporting roles at best.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Book Review: Running Mate, Simon Pick

This is the debut SF novel for Simon Pick and is set against a grim backdrop of politics in America. Given recent events, readers might think that the book is less far-fetched than the author intended when he started writing it 4 years ago.

The premise of the book is that the American people have been disenfranchised by politics, with the winner of the presidential race essentially being chosen at random according to whichever big businesses have funded their campaigns the most. These random elections are seen as anti-democratic – so an alternative is put in place, allowing (even encouraging) the people to end a presidency by force and trigger a fresh election. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence systems get on with the real business of government, without all the emotional turmoil that humans brings.

There are aspects of Groundhog Day in the story, in that the turnover of presidents is frequent (many last only a few days) and we repeatedly experience the fake election, investiture and then untimely death of each presidential candidate. By the end of the book, this unnervingly starts to become a new normal – the candidates themselves well know that their presidential term signals the end of their life and many have elaborate plans of how to bow out.

One of the repeated scenes is the assignment of a robot bodyguard to look after the president. The robots have artificial intelligence and impressive specifications in terms of movement and cognitive ability. In theory, having one or more such robots would be sufficient to protect the president from a lone attacker – but we see that amendments to the constitution allow the presidents sufficient free-will to override their own safety. This loop-hole limits how much physical protection the robots can give.

There are a few characters who run through the book – the permanent staff of the White House. The main ones are Archer (the technologist) and Jim (a sort of Chief of Staff), who disagree on how to deploy the robots to prolong the life of the presidents (among other things). Once the robot program is terminated, one senses that Archer will rebel, though the reader is left in suspense about what he has in mind.

Recent events in America make this dystopian book a good read.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Disclaimer: the author works in the same department as me, but I had to buy my own copy (!) and the opinions in this review are my own.

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Book Review: The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman

I saw this book reviewed in the excellent Between the Covers on the BBC. The author, Richard Osman, is famous for his appearances on Pointless and other TV panel shows, so I was interested to read his new novel. This is set in a retirement village, where there are many different pursuits for the residents to enjoy – with one invite-only group dedicated to solving old murder cases. The book is partly written in the third person, with the rest narrated by Joyce, a retired nurse and recently joined member of the murder club.

The book suffers from the malaise of most modern tales of murder, which is that one is never enough. The first murder, is of Tony Curran, the main builder of the retirement village. His murder gives the club the chance to investigate a live case for once, about which they are thrilled. With no shortage of suspects, they have plenty to do – and in order to keep up to date with the case, they befriend PC De Freitas, who is working on the case. One of the suspects is Ian Ventham, the loathsome owner of the retirement village, who stands to gain significantly from the death of Curran. However, with so many enemies, it’s not long before Ventham, too, has an untimely death.

I lost count of the other deaths in the book – I believe there were at least 7 altogether. Some of these were long before the timeframe of this book, given that the main protagonists are in their seventies and eighties. In my opinion, the characters of those living in the retirement home, the police detectives and those involved in running the home were strong enough to have carried a single murder story. As it was, it felt that other characters had been introduced, along with unlikely motives and associated murders, just to complicate the book and add some padding.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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Book Review: The Crossing, Michael Connelly

I tend to read these Harry Bosch thrillers in a whatever order I come across them in charity/second-hand book shops, rather than the order in which the author wrote them. Sometimes, there are fun coincidences by doing that. This book is supposedly an anomaly in which Harry Bosch works as an investigator for his half-brother Micky Haller (he refers to this as the dark side, having recently retired from the LAPD): but in The Night Fire, the last book I read in this series, he did exactly the same thing!

The crossing referred to in the title is where the victim and the accused cross paths – and that’s the problem in this case. Despite efforts by the original investigators on the crime, no connection was made between Lexi Parks, a manager at the council, and Da’Quan Foster, a former gang member who now runs a reputable business. Whilst DNA evidence put DQ at the scene of the crime, Micky Haller is convinced that his client is innocent and enrols Bosch to take a look at the case. Bosch too is unsatisfied, especially given the frenzied nature of the attack.

In a parallel story line, Ellis and Long, two LA vice cops, are taking the law into their own hands – intimidating Micky Haller and his investigator as well as tailing Bosch. The challenge for Bosch is to find the real killer of Parks, starting by tracing her missing watch (a rare and expensive timepiece). He must also persuade the accused, DQ, to divulge his real alibi, which opens another line of enquiry into the recent murder of local prostitute James Allen.

Four stars

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Book Review: The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut

This SF novel is another from the SF Masterworks series. Whereas the last SF book that I read – Book Review: The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu) – was a sublime piece of work, this book begins with quite ridiculous characters. The main protagonists are Winston Niles Rumfoord and Malachi Constant. Rumfoord, caught by the spirit of adventure, has flown his spacecraft into a “chronological-synclastic infundibulum”, leaving him distributed throughout the solar system, materialising on Earth every 59 days. Able to see the past and future, he hatches a dastardly plan to colonise Mars, invade Earth and found a new religion. Malachi Constant’s father made a fortune by investing in stocks and shares, following a secret recipe for stock-picking that never failed him. Consequently, Malachi inherited vast wealth – but he had no relationship with his father and spends life partying to excess.

I nearly wrote off this book after the early chapters, but the plot develops and the journey of Malachi Constant from Earth, on to Mars (part of the great military build-up to the war) then to the beautiful crystal caves of Mercury are a work of great imagination. There are even parallels with The Three-Body problem, in that we sense the influence of the alien world Tralfamadore in the behaviour of the characters. One of my favourite parts was when Salo (a Tralfamadorian stranded on Venus) read replies to his message home, written in stones on the surface of Earth at what is now known as Stonehenge: “Replacement part being rushed with all possible speed”.

This book won’t be to everyone’s taste (I’m not sure it was to mine!) but, being published in 1959, it’s a work full of the glories of space travel and a terrifying plot of how a rogue individual can control the destiny of our planet.

Three stars

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Book Review: The Night Fire, Michael Connelly

This is another novel from Michael Connelly featuring his new detective partnership, Ballard and Bosch. Renee Ballard is a young woman who, through no fault of her own, works the undesirable night shift at the LAPD. To supplement the drudge work she is assigned, she investigates cases on the side, with some assistance from retired detective Harry Bosch. Now that Bosch is 70 years old, he’s showing signs of wear and tear (his knee is a problem and he walks with a cane). Despite that, his appetite to solve crimes is undiminished and he does a lot of the leg work, whilst leaving the action and limelight to Ballard.

The book starts with the trial of a suspect charged with the murder of a judge. Unusually, Bosch assists the lawyer for the defence (his half-brother Micky Haller) and on examination of the case file, he finds a flaw in the original investigation. Being Bosch, he isn’t satisfied with helping Haller on the case, he revives the original investigation to find the real killer. Meanwhile, Ballard is called to investigate the death of a rough sleeper who burned to death in his tent. Whilst initially not suspicious, this case warrants further investigation because the deceased stood to inherit a fortune.

A further case is featured in this book, after a widow of Bosch’s former mentor passes a murder book to him. This seemingly unpromising case (a drug-related murder in a side alley 30 years ago) reveals much about the mentor and gives Ballard and Bosch the dual-challenge of not only tracking down the killer, but also keeping their investigation legitimate so that it can go to trial.

By coincidence, I read The Overlook just before this one, and that book has the story behind Bosch’s chronic myeloid leukaemia due to caesium poisoning.

As ever, Connelly has written a good page-turner in this book, although not up there with his best.
Three stars

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Rambling: Linton Orchards Circular, Kent

Map of the route
This is another walk from the Kent Pathfinder Guide, starting from the village of Linton. We had lunch at The Bull Inn, which has extensive views across the Kent countryside, including the orchards and vineyards that formed the route for our walk. The full walk in the book is 7 miles (11km) but we reduced it to 7km by walking just the second half, which crosses the Bon Fleur cross-country course (sadly, there weren’t any horses on this occasion) and includes extensive apple orchards and vineyards.
Views of Kent

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Rambling: Lamberhurst to Hook Green, Kent

Map of route

Lamberhurst is a pretty village near Royal Tunbridge Wells, with a couple of pubs. We had an excellent lunch at The Chequers, before walking the second half of the “Lamberhurst and Hook Green” walk from the Kent Pathfinder Guide. The plan had been to stop for refreshments at The Elephant’s Head at Hook Green, but unfortunately that was closed on Mondays!

The walk was almost entirely away from any main roads, making it very peaceful. There were plenty of grouse around the wooded areas (see below) and the walk also skirted the edge of a vineyard which seemed to have a fine yield of grapes this year.

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Rambling: Leeds Castle, Kent


This is a short walk of about 5km, starting at the village of Leeds. Cutting through the village cricket ground, the route joins a footpath into the grounds of Leeds Castle, where you can get views of the castle itself and enjoy the views across the Great Lake. Whilst visiting the buildings themselves needs a visitor pass, the views are free and this was a delightful walk, including refreshments from the Whistle Stop coffee stop.

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